Did Beijing just send an ultimatum to CY Leung?

August 31, 2016 14:10
It's interesting how Sing Pao (inset) tarred Zhang Xiaoming (above right), often described as the real power in Hong Kong, with the same brush as Leung CY Leung (left). Photos: CNSA, Singpao.com.hk

Beijing is getting impatient with the Legislative Council elections just days away.

Or has it merely lost control of the script?

This election was supposed to test -- among other things -- Leung Chun-ying's fitness to continue to lead Hong Kong.

Instead, it has become a proxy war between Beijing and pro-independence forces and a quagmire for pro-establishment candidates.

And all because no other than Leung himself stoked the independence rhetoric, aided by Beijing's top official in Hong Kong.

To hear it from pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Pao Daily, these two men -- Leung and Beijing Liaison Office chief Zhang Xiaoming -- are to blame for the rise of the pro-independence faction.

Sing Pao called them out for "spreading the independence mindset" and for "creating social instability".

The article echoes many of Leung's critics who accuse him of being the "godfather" of Hong Kong independence.

But why bother with Sing Pao?

First of all, it's no lightweight in Beijing's eyes.

Founded in 1939, Sing Pao is one of Hong Kong's oldest Chinese-language newspapers.

Although past its 1970s heyday, it is reputed to have close ties with the People's Liberation Army under its present owner, a Chinese businessman who himself is said to be cozy with senior Beijing officials.

It's interesting how the newspaper tarred Zhang, often described as the real power in Hong Kong, with the same brush as Leung, calling the former's meddling "Western District ruling Hong Kong (in reference to the Liaison Office's address).

Former chief secretary Anson Chan wonders if Leung is actually fueling the independence movement to persuade Beijing to keep him in 2017 by reappointing him to a second five-year term.

Chan also castigated the government for its iron-fisted approach to the issue.

"The way the government should approach this... instead of using a sledgehammer... is to allow teachers and parents to examine the pros and cons, and allow the subject to be discussed openly," Chan said.

"It almost leads me to believe that the chief executive has a hidden agenda. It’s to create such havoc in Hong Kong that he has more reasons to persuade Beijing that a strong pair of hands is needed to keep Hong Kong in control."

No one knows if the Communist Party is using Sing Pao to warm Leung, Zhang or both, but given its apparent pre-occupation with the independence talk, it's easy to connect the dots to the embattled Hong Kong chief executive.

Leung has been ratcheting up his attacks on localists and independence supporters, making no distinction between the two.

Last month, the Electoral Affairs Commision (EAC) disqualified Edward Leung, the standard bearer for the pro-independence Hong Kong Indigenous party, from running in the elections.

The move came after the EAC required all candidates to pledge allegiance to the Basic Law and recognize China's sovereignty over Hong Kong.

It should have been an administrative master stroke by a supposedly independent, non-partisan and impartial body except that Leung is known to abuse his authority and expand its influence beyond his ambit.

And where his ambitions to win a second term are concerned, he is only too willing to use everything at his disposal to stay afloat because he is sinking like a stone. 

According to a new survey by the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong, Leung's popularity rating fell a further 1.8 points to 39 from early August. That is well below the red line of 45.

His approval rating is at 19 percent against his disapproval rating of 63 percent, or a net popularity of negative 44 percentage points, down five percentage points from early August.

The poll shows younger and more educated respondents are the most critical of Leung.

If those numbers translate to voter preferences for or against his allies in the pro-establishment camp, that could only mean everyone is going down.  

Beijing may be buying time to observe Leung's performance before deciding whether to anoint him again.

But even with nearly a year left before the chief executive election, it's already risking too much just by thinking about keeping him at the helm.

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EJ Insight writer